Brad Bird’s ‘The Iron Giant’

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The Iron Giant. Warner Bros.

by Sheri Galloway

What if a gun had a soul? That was the question that was pinned to walls, doors and bulletin boards on the production of The Iron Giant. The year was 1999 and we had been working on the film for over a year when the Columbine Massacre happened. Like the rest of the world, we were stunned — but even more so because our movie was about a giant robot who didn’t know he was designed to be a killing machine.

I started my career on low-budget live action movies in Texas. My IMDb page has a few “wish to be forgotten” titles on it. So when I had a chance to move from Lawnmower Man 2 to Mulan, I made the leap to animation. It was a little frightening, but I knew that I would now have the opportunity to work on films that I could share with my grandchildren. And of all the animated films I have worked on, The Iron Giant is the one of which I am most proud.

This film not only shows that the government can be irrational, it also covers the question of guns. Guns kill. The recent Colorado theatre massacre brings that to our attention again. The Iron Giant learned he was “a gun.” He was attacked by people who did not understand him. He tried to run but was pursued and damaged by violence. He lost who he was and turned into that killing machine. It seems we don’t know or understand how an innocent child can somehow turn to violence, but The Iron Giant opened up that world. It showed how violence creates more violence. Just as the giant was about to destroy the world, he was saved by his friend Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal). Hogarth was there for him and told him he did not have to be a gun.

The film was directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and edited by Darren Holmes, A.C.E. (How to Train Your Dragon). As first assistant, I learned so much from watching Darren’s work. He created performances by taking pieces of dialogue from different readings and putting them together. Sometimes all he had to do was add a sigh and we gained a whole new insight into the character’s feelings. Of course, the biggest challenge in editorial is that animators often open up the length of each scene and this can endanger the pacing of the entire film. It was a cherished learning experience to watch Darren collaborate with Brad and the animators to preserve the best of both worlds.

The Iron Giant. Warner Bros.

The names of the crew who worked on this film are a Who’s Who of animation. However, Entertainment Weekly has it listed in the “50 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen.” The Iron Giant dominated the Annie Awards in 1999, winning every category in which it was nominated. How is it that this movie was never seen? It was a blow to us. We thought we were making a film that audiences would throng to see.

But the truth? The Iron Giant was a marketing tragedy. The Studio didn’t understand the film from the start. A movie that harkens back to the Red Scare of the ‘50s? But I lived those days. Brave New World and 1984 were books we studied in high school. So I totally identified with a small boy trying to hide a gentle giant robot from a government fearful that everything was a Communist threat.

The Iron Giant is a film that teaches us about our humanity, our soul. It delivers the message in a gentle and warm story. If just for those reasons alone, this would be one of my favorite films. But I also learned a lesson from working on it. Marketing matters. Because a big massive studio didn’t put anything into it, three years of my life boiled down to a DVD in the kids’ rental aisle of my local video store. At the time, the pain I experienced when The Iron Giant opened and closed in just a few weeks was stunning. It felt like a catastrophe. For years, we got sympathetic smiles from our fellow filmmakers. There was lots of praise and appreciation for what we did and it helped so much to have the respect of our peers, yet it was so disheartening that so few people knew what a great little film it was.

Luckily, over the years something incredible happened. A new generation of young people found The Iron Giant on the Cartoon Network. In a recent article for Indiewire.com, a comparison was made between The Iron Giant and It’s a Wonderful Life: Both films gained their fame on television. I have learned that despite the box office, a truly great film will find its way.

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